Screen Time, Zoom Fatigue, and Sedentary Behavior: Tips for Protecting Your Health in the Digital Age

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities have implemented remote or hybrid learning to help mitigate the risk of contracting the virus (Smalley, 2020). Numerous dietetics students across the United States have been enrolled in remote learning courses since March, 2020. With the completing of autumn quarter approaching, students on the quarter system are close to finishing up their second or third quarter of what has likely been remote or hybrid instruction. Students are becoming increasingly familiar with and confident in engaging in online courses, but how much thought has been given to the effects of increased screen time on their health and well-being?

My overarching question for this blog post is as follows: As the dietetics profession is increasingly utilizing telehealth technology to provide medical nutrition therapy services, what actions are recommended to protect whole body health in this type of work?

This questions aligns with the personal value of self-awareness/self-care and reflects ISTE Standard 7B:  “Partner with educators, leaders, students and families to foster a culture of respectful online interactions and a healthy balance in their use of technology – self-regulating time online to ensure well-being and physical health”(International Society for Technology in Education).

My goal to increase awareness among dietetics students regarding the potential effects of escalating screen time, and the concurrent increase in sedentary behavior on physical, mental, and emotional health. I will provide tips on how to support health when engaging in remote learning. However, it is essential that dietetics students understand the effects of screen time and consequent sedentary behaviors, which may flow into their professional work lives if they are not mindful and self-aware about the importance of prioritizing and protecting their health.  

Clinical dietitians comprise the largest segment of the dietetic profession, making it reasonable to assume that many dietetics students will provide medical nutrition therapy services at some point in their careers. Telehealth, an innovative technology used to assess, counsel, and educate patients and clients remotely, is becoming increasingly utilized by the dietetics profession. And while convenient for patients, an increased reliance on it increases screen time, sedentary activity, and most likely practitioner stress levels.

In an article titled, “Zoom fatigue: What you can do about it,” the author points out that while the term “zoom fatigue” was coined fairly recently after the popular videoconferencing company, the term “videoconferencing fatigue” has been used for a longer period of time to describe the potential for ill effects on health caused by sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time. The author compared use of telehealth technology before and after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In doing so, she discussed the pre-COVID era of telehealth where a practitioner might have a few videoconferencing meetings sprinkled into their day, but plenty of time to get up and walk around the hospital for various reasons before settling back in for another telehealth appointment. In contrast, over the past half-year or so when many practitioners were thrust into working from home and seeing clients in back-to-back telehealth appointments, there is less time, flexibility and limited opportunity in scheduling to take adequate breaks from screen time, which increases the risk for a plethora of potentially negative effects on health and well-being (Maheu, 2020).

Regarding the potential physical effects of videoconferencing, Maheu (2020) states that a stationary posture is often required to keep visible via a computer camera, which limits movement and can increase body tension. She also mentions the effects of screen time on eye health, including strain and discomfort. Further, an article published by Norton staff discussed additional physical effects of screen time, including “forward head posture,” which can cause inflammation in the neck and back and cause the spine to misalign. The article also mentioned that having the head in a down position increases strain on the neck (author unknown). To mitigate the physical health effects of videoconferencing, the above-mentioned articles provide the following recommendations on structuring the workspace environment to protect physical health:  

  • Consider purchasing an orthopedic chair or a standing desk
  • Stretch and move around every 20-30 minutes
  • Avoid slouching and sit upright
  • To protect eyes from strain and irritability:
    • use as large of a screen as possible
    • minimize contrast between computer screen and room lighting
    • reduce the brightness of the computer screen
    • Adapt the 20-20-20 rule: look away from the screen at something 20 feet away every 20 minutes for 20 seconds

Mental and emotional effects of videoconferencing

Further, there have been concerns raised about the effects that videoconferencing has on mental and emotional well-being due to increased social isolation and social disconnection. In an article published in Psychiatric Times, the author describes several differences in communicating via videoconferencing compared to in person meetings, and the effects on mental well-being. First off, the lack of a direct mutual gaze is lost when utilizing teleconferencing. One must look into their computer camera in order for it to appear that they are making eye contact with the recipient. However, if a person is actually looking into a computer camera they cannot look directly at the person on the screen, resulting in a loss of social connection. Additionally, non-verbal behaviors are less noticeable and subtle facial expressions can be missed. Thus, the combination of social isolation and social disconnection that may result from increased time using videoconferencing coupled with less time to engage socially in person can have negative effects on mental and emotional health (Lee, 2020).

Tips for protecting mental and emotional health while relying on videoconferencing include the following:

  • Minimize screen and space apart videoconferencing sessions as much as possible
  • Stay active and get plenty of fresh air and sunshine (American Psychiatric Association)
  • Keep connected with family and friends
  • Practice meditation and relaxation techniques (Ancis, 2020)
  • Get enough sleep

In summary, awareness of the effects of increased screen time and decreased physical activity as potential realities to our ever-increasing reliance on digital technology is key to protecting health and well-being. Maybe a walk in the crisp, cool autumn air amidst the freshly fallen leaves bejeweled beneath your feet is what the doctor has ordered . . . 

References

Ancis, R. (2020). Three tips for mental health during COVID-19 and Zoom. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-cyberpsychology-page/202004/three-tips-mental-health-during-covid-19-and-zoom

Author unknown. (2020). Technology usage and the physical effects on your body. Norton. https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-how-to-technology-usage-and-the-physical-effects-on-your-body.html

Author unknown. (2020). Working remotely during COVID-19: Your mental health and well-being. American Psychiatric Association. http://workplacementalhealth.org/Employer-Resources/Working-Remotely-During-COVID-19

International Society for Technology in Education. ISTE Standards for Coaches. https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches

Maheu, M. (2020, August 29). Zoom fatigue: What you can do about it. https://telehealth.org/blog/zoom-fatigue-what-it-is-what-you-can-do/

Smalley, A. (2020). Higher education response to Coronavirus (COVID-19). National Conference of State Legislatures. https://www.ncsl.org/research/education/higher-education-responses-to-coronavirus-covid-19.aspx